AFTER months of a crowded field of primary candidates for President, the next few months will start to reveal how much influence agriculture will have in the 2016 presidential elections.
Heading into the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, the first primary in the nation, business mogul Donald Trump has a solid lead among farmers, according to recent surveys.
Farm Futures surveyed 1,083 farmers nationwide from Dec. 7, 2015, to Jan. 4, 2016. Of the more than 400 farmers surveyed from Iowa, 37% who favor a Republican said they would vote for Trump "if the election were held today." Trump's support among Republican-voting farmers was even stronger among farmers outside Iowa, at 39%. Even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has thrown her support behind Trump in recent days.
The survey found that Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) had 20% support outside Iowa and 29% in Iowa, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) with 12% both in and outside Iowa. Ben Carson's fanfare has died down, with only 6% of support in Iowa and 10% outside Iowa.
Iowa polls show Cruz to be slightly ahead or even with Trump among the entire population, and the possibility of the state voting for Cruz despite his anti-renewable fuel standard stance has stirred up considerable concern.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad made strong remarks at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit Jan. 19, saying, "I think it would be very damaging to our state for Cruz to win. I believe it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him."
Robert Thompson, Gardner chair in agricultural policy at the University of Illinois, said many were surprised at how well Trump and Carson did in early polls, but in both cases, they have run as outsiders critical of the stalemate that exists in Washington. "The utter frustration with Washington is giving them a boost," Thompson said.
While hot-button issues like immigration and terrorism dominate the campaign issues for all voters, farmers on both sides of the aisle say the most important issue in the 2016 presidential election is "the way government in Washington operates." Some 30% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans agreed. Another 10% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans listed terrorism as the top issue.
So, what about farm policy? The Farm Futures survey found very little importance placed on farm policy, with just 6% of Iowa Republicans and 2% of Iowa Democrats ranking it as the most important issue. Similarly, outside Iowa, only 4% of Republicans and 5% of Democrats cited it as the top priority.
The "Agri-Pulse Farm Opinion Poll," conducted Dec. 8-18 in partnership with the Iowa Soybean Assn., found similar sentiment: Nearly 18% of 157 farmers indicated that they support Trump.
Cruz garnered 16% support from respondents, and slightly more than 10% backed Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. Of the other candidates, 9% support Gov. Jeb Bush, 6% support Rubio, 5% support businesswoman Carly Fiorina and 3% support Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Poll participants were also asked to rank the importance of 15 national and international issues affecting the race for President, and 66% rated national security as the top priority, while 57% said the same about terrorism.
Renewable fuels are a top presidential campaign priority for 50% of the respondents, followed by regulatory issues (48%), crop insurance/farm bill/farm policy (44%) and immigration (33%), with climate change receiving the least focus, at just 11% of respondents.
The pool of Republicans remains overloaded heading into the primary season, but none have solid rural credentials. Overall, the leading headline candidates seem to have a substantial lack of agricultural policy experience and foundation, although some have a solid history in Congress.
If primary voters continue to go with the "anti-Washington establishment" focus, the question remains how that plays out for rural America.